Is the US Careening Toward a Clash with North Korea? Two Experts Answer

North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program and recent missile tests have heightened tensions between the East Asian nation and the United States. Are we careening toward a clash?

Brandon Prins

“I think we should all take a few breaths and recognize that multiple presidents have had to address this issue multiple times. This is not new,” said Brandon Prins, a UT professor of political science who studies international relations. “If resolving the issues and contention between the US and North Korea and South and North Korea were simple, they clearly would have been done long ago.”

The series of North Korean missile tests has challenged and will challenge the United States’ leadership in the Korean Peninsula region and the world, said Wonjae Hwang, a UT associate professor of political science whose research in international relations includes the politics and foreign policies of Korea.

Wonjae Hwang

The Korean peninsula is surrounded by Russia, China, and Japan—all of which, along with South Korea, have diplomatic relations with the United States. Hwang added that South Korea’s deepening dependence on China—a growing economic power—instead of the United States, may be complicating US interests in the region.

Although some fear that North Korea might develop the capability to deliver a nuclear bomb to US territories, the real concern “is the possibility that the nuclear bombs and missiles could be transferred and sold to other rogue states or terrorist groups,” Hwang said. “In addition, if North Korea has a delivery system that can effectively target any region in Japan as well as South Korea, the US will face stronger demands from these countries for protection, and these countries are likely to pursue their own nuclear weapon programs. Therefore, the US has a key interest to prevent North Korea from having long-range delivery missile systems.”

In an attempt to pressure North Korea to cease its nuclear program, the United States has levied economic sanctions in the past, but they did not work because China has not always cooperated until recently.

“China likes a somewhat unstable North Korea because it directs attention away from China and issues it is not addressing. To a certain extent, China is willing to give the North Korean regime some leeway,” Prins said.

But too much instability in North Korea could mean a flow of refugees from the country into China, which would affect China economically, he said.

As next steps, the United States must work closer with China as well as trying to maintain a close relationship with South Korea and Japan, Hwang said.

“If the North Korean regime decides to perform another nuclear missile test, we cannot eliminate the possibility that the US initiates a military action such as an air strike,” he said. “But, if China takes this as a threat to its national security or interests and not North Korea’s, the level of tension in the region will rise significantly.”

So what is this current US presidential administration to do?

“It’s not clear whether the Trump administration has any solution that would work other than trying to sound tough,” Prins said. “They’re hoping that a signal of strength will get some movement.”

That show of force, however, may be meant to send a message to China to prompt the nation’s leaders to coerce North Korea, he said.

North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to incur costs, including sanctions and international rebukes.

“We have to determine—is it more beneficial to bomb their nuclear facilities and set them back a number of years but incur hundreds of thousands of deaths that could result from that? I don’t know who would make that calculation. The costs far outweigh the benefits.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may seem more erratic than his predecessors but he is more concerned about perception, Prins said.

“He’s young, inexperienced, and doesn’t look like a serious person,” Prins said. “So he’s trying to show his power to ensure his own survival as head of state. We have Donald Trump, who’s trying to do the same thing and change the narrative of an administration that talks tough but doesn’t do anything. Might these two individuals who are trying to show strength push things to a conflict situation? I would think that cooler heads in the military might advise differently.”

A US military response to North Korea would challenge North Korea to respond in kind and potentially attack US military bases in South Korea and Japan, a possibility that heightens the military conflict in the region, Hwang said. But he cautioned against overreaction to and exaggeration of the situation, which could lead the United States to adopt unnecessary aggressive policies.

“I think there is a room for them to work together to resolve this issue peacefully,” Hwang said.

China could mediate a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea in exchange for North Korea’s total renunciation of its nuclear weapon programs in the short term, he said.

“But neighboring countries need to have a long-term plan about how to deal with North Korea,” Hwang said. “If foreign policies toward North Korea continue to fluctuate or are inconsistent across different political leadership in the US or neighboring governments, we will not be able to send a strong and credible signal to the North Korean regime.”

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)